It would be difficult to describe the culture and atmosphere in Tokyo without experiencing the culinary delights that are available, a particular highlights for any traveler visiting the Japan, as the city ranks amongst the top food destinations on the planet. From greasy noodle shops to high-end kaiseki meals, from smoke-stained yakitori joints to the temples of fish that are the sushi bars, you’ll never run out of options as far as how to fill your belly. In fact, a recent comparison of the largest metropolitan areas worldwide showed that not only were there more restaurants in Tokyo than other city on the list, but that Tokyo had three times the number as second place finisher. Add on top of that the fact the Japanese are as exacting and discerning about what they eat as any other culture on the planet. When speaking of how long a particular chef has to train to master his or her specific craft, the time frame isn’t in weeks or months, as we may normally think in the West, but in years or even decades. The cuisine here has been elevated to a such a level that meals go beyond merely sustenance and include seasonal elements (both in the ingredients and the presentation), artistic touches from the chef, flashes of tradition in the etiquette of serving, and a bit of wiggle room for improvisation to enhance the personal experience where necessary.
The best point to start the culinary tour through the city is that of Tokyo’s kitchen: Tsukiji Market. A sprawling mega-market that is famous for its seafood (which is shipped all over the world, in fact), it also has a fruit and vegetable market that one shouldn’t overlook, as well as a variety of cookware vendors, prepared food stalls, and sushi restaurants. And even though the public is allowed to visit during certain times, this is still a fully functioning market, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled, else you’re liable to be run over by a forklift carrying a few thousands pounds of live fish or a get caught by one of the many sprayers that periodically clean the aisles.
Additionally, for those who are really into sushi, they offer guided tours of the tuna auctions — where a single fish can, on occasion, fetch prices upwards of $100,000 — but unfortunately for me, the payoff of watching a group of fisherman stand over a frozen fish and yell in a language I can’t understand at 5am in the morning wasn’t really up my alley. I decided to arrive fashionably late around mid-morning, when the seafood wholesaler’s market is first opened to the public:
Leading off with Tsukiji makes for a nice transition into one of Japan’s specialty foods — and specifically that of Tokyo — in that of Edo-mai zushi, otherwise known across the globe simply as sushi. Developed in during the Edo period of Tokyo’s history as one of the world’s first fast foods – being that you can eat it on the go with your fingers – sometime in the early 1800′s, it undoubtedly resulted from an unknown chef’s epiphany to place sashimi (small slices of raw fish) atop a finger of vinegared rice. And although much of the sushi world is focused on the taste and texture of various cuts of raw fish, raw fish certainly doesn’t encapsulate everything, as many ingredients are often soaked in shoyo or soy sauce, some are simmered quickly before hitting the rice, and on occasion (in today’s newfound pursuit of “unique and novel”), you’ll even come across a fried or tempura bit – though this is far from traditional. To start my sushi feast in the city in which it was born, I made sure to stop by the famous Daiwa Sushi before leaving Tsukiji market:
Seeing that I obviously indulged in sushi on a nearly daily basis, I made a point of trying my way around a variety of unique offerings reflecting a broad range of what is available. Here are a few of the other highlights from my time in Tokyo:
As a side note, I almost hesitated to post any pictures or write about sushi when speaking of Japan, as this is so commonly thought of as the foundation of Japanese cuisine or the crux of what is available, a misnomer and cliché that I didn’t want to perpetuate. Given that it is one of the regional specialties of Tokyo, however, I persisted and threw it out there anyway. But alas, there is still so much more to discover. For a brief intro as far as what is available, a great option is to head to any of the the depachika, of the major department stores, which can be found anywhere in the high-end shopping meccas such as Ginza or Harajuku. In addition to the clothing, perfume, and whatever else it is that department stores sell (I’m not really much of a shopper), the basement floors here in Tokyo are mini-shrines to all things edible. This vaulted ground is the land of perfect fruit, perfect vegetables, and the perfectly unreasonable prices to match, unfortunately. But alas, whether one plans on buying anything, a quick stroll through is more than worth the time:
The heart of the food scene here, however – the everyday, working man’s type of grub — comes in a plate (or bowl) of perfectly cooked, starch-laden noodles. Whether it’s a cheap and greasy bowl of ramen (Chinese egg noodles in a soup-like broth), the chunky texture of udon (thicker and made with wheat flour), or the pleasingly nutty flavor of soba (made with buckwheat), nothing quite satisfies the locals like a steaming bowl of noodles in any of its thousands of variations. Although there are some specialty shops selling gourmet versions of this tubular fare – always competing with each as to who has the “best,” whatever that means — noodles are usually just about the quickest and least expensive way to satiate your hunger, and a comfort food for just about everyone.
Although listing through all of dishes available in this food-centric city would be nearly impossible, I’ll do my best to hit a few of the more common dishes you’ll run across:
Hidden around the corner from the ultra-busy Shinjuku Station is a tiny little alley called Omoide-yokocho (which translates into “Memory Lane,” but often takes on the moniker of “Yakitori Alley” or even the less tasteful “Piss Alley”). This is the type of place that you smell long before you see it, as the entire alley is packed with smoke-stained yakitori joints, turning out tiny skewers of meats and vegetables grilled over a specific type of charcoal, called binchotan, and feeding the diners as many cold beers as they can take.
Adding a bit of evening entertainment into the mix, Japan also offers many cook-it-yourself meals to occupy both your senses and your inner chef (the most famous being okonomiyaki and tako yaki, but those will have to wait for my trip to Osaka). Unfortunately, however, these activities are of the sort (i.e. putting often drunk customer in charge of searing-hot, table-side griddles and simmering pots of oily broth) that they’d rarely be allowed back in the United States, as some unfortunate soul would inevitably burn themselves out of their own sheer negligence, sue the restaurant, and effectively ruin the fun for everyone else. Alas, I guess it just means you’ll have to buy that plane ticket!
And for a quick dessert, or a refreshing treat on one of those unbearably hot Tokyo summer days, it is tough to go wrong with matcha ice cream (green tea flavored):
The Liquid Side of Life:
Along with the extensive options for edibles to enjoy, Japan is a place hell-bent on their hellacious drinking culture, as well. It is standard practice for salarymen (the suited office workers of Japan) to file out of work in the evening and straight into any of thousands of izakayas, shot bars, and watering holes throughout the city for a long night before finally returning home. Even though it would be tough to fully experience the city without a few nights out on the town, it didn’t take much twisting of the ole’ arm to get me out and about:
From a historical perspective, Belgium and Germany certainly have the most storied histories when it comes to the brewing arts — the former largely focusing on ales and the latter focusing on lagers. The beer geeks of the world, however, have been, in recent years, lobbying for something new and different from the traditional beers of these two brewing powerhouses. So when it comes to the world leader in craft beer, one is bound to lose the argument unless, of course, they are speaking out on the behalf of the push-all-boundries, challenge-all-existing-notions attitude of the United States craft beer industry. That being said, however, it is impossible to dismiss Japan in the same argument, as they have picked up the torch that was lit in the USA, followed suit, and have incorporated their own unique twists and flavors into the equation (as a side note, Italy probably ranks 3rd in the craft beer race). And being the good beer geek that I am, I just had to sample some of the brewing magic that is being summoned here:
As a final adventure for my time in Tokyo, I knew that I had to explore the local nihonsho scene (known as “sake” in the West, which really just translates to a general term such as “booze” over here) — a brewed beverage made with rice that has a subtle, dry flavor with a flowery aroma and is usually slightly stronger than that of wine. The brewing of sake is riddled with history and tradition, and before setting off on my great adventure around the world, I had made a point of dipping my toes into the sake culture – learning as much as I could — something that became my hobby du jour, so to speak. And although it quickly climbed to my ”relaxing beverage” of choice, I was quite limited by what few labels we had available to us in Ohio. Now that I’ve finally made it to Japan, however, I’ve essentially been a kid in a candy store, able to indulge my taste buds in some of the best and freshest sake on the planet. O, happy day!
To go beyond the everyday tipple, however, I had done quite a bit of research online prior to my arrival, seeking out advice on some of the top sake bars in the city. I settled on one bar titled “Kuri” that seemed to receive the most rave reviews from sake fanatics in the city. So I wrote down the address and headed down to the Ginza district, where it was located. Being a foreigner, however, and unaccustomed to how the addresses are laid out (hint: they are not in numeric order in the slightest), I quickly figured out this was going to be more difficult than I had anticipated. Eventually, I found my way to the building in question, specifically the back alley of said building, but then the second problem appeared — how do I know which of the dozens of bars that lined the streets, and climbed up 6 stories high, was the correct one given I can’t read any of the signs. After walking up and down the alley about a half-dozen times, desperately trying — and failing — to make eye-contact with anyone who may be able to help, I finally called it quits and began heading home with my head hanging low. But as luck would have it, on my way back to the metro station, I spotted the four letters I was looking for, “Kuri,” on a small sign on the second floor. I’ve found it!
Now, quick cut to the bartender’s point of view: You’re tending to your very upscale bar, serving your customers, chatting with the regulars, when the sliding door opens and a huge foreigner stands in the doorway. Clearly, he can’t speak any Japanese, doesn’t have anything even resembling a reservation (which in hindsight, was probably a prerequisite), is dressed entirely inappropriately for the atmosphere, has the shaggy, disheveled hair of a traveler, and has clearly sweated through his shirt already. To anyone with any sensibilities, the correct action would have been to politely, but firmly, turn said customer away. However, luckily for me (and luck was on my side this night), the bar tender must have seen some glint in my eye that he found favorable, as he made space for me in his tiny spot in the universe and proceeded to take me through several custom tasting menus of some of the best sakes available anywhere. This experience now ranks near the top of the list of my favorite memories of my entire trip, and the bar has become another entry on the short-list that is “My favorite places on the planet.”
Until next time, Kampai from Tokyo!